SOCHI, Russia — The ice in front of their goals was filled with the zooming bodies of a few dozen of the fastest skaters and hardest shots in all of hockey, and their immediate air space was peppered with flying pucks. For 60 frantic minutes of play, this went on, the U.S. and Canada men’s hockey teams trying like mad to score past them, and Jonathan Quick and Carey Price, the teams’ respective goalies, shutting off every avenue — with one fateful exception.
A lone puck out of the 68 fired during Friday night’s Olympic semifinal game found its way past the pads and sticks of these two world-class goalies, and it was into Quick’s net, through no real fault of his. And so the Canadians won another entertaining, Olympic battle between these North American rivals, 1-0, and will move on to play Sweden in Sunday’s gold medal game.
The United States, which has never won Olympic gold outside its own borders (having won only in Squaw Valley in 1960 and Lake Placid in 1980), will face Finland on Saturday in the bronze medal game. Three times in the past four Olympics, the Americans have faced Canada in an elimination game, and all three times they have lost.
“It’s a tough way to lose,” U.S. center David Backes said. “We’ll be thinking about this for a while.”
The only goal of the game came less than two minutes into the second period on a give-and-go play by Canada’s Jamie Benn and Jay Bouwmeester. After gathering the puck following a faceoff, Benn fed it to Bouwmeester above the left faceoff circle, then went toward the net, where Bouwmeester threaded a perfect wrist-pass through traffic to Benn’s stick. Benn deflected it past Quick, who stood no chance.
“We were just trying to grind them out down low,” said Benn, a 24-year-old left wing for the Dallas Stars. “Jay Bouwmeester made a great shot-pass, and it found a way in.”
Winter speed demons (and curlers, too)
On a rink full of talented offensive forces, Price, a three-time all-star for the Montreal Canadiens, and Quick, of the Los Angeles Kings, were the best players on the ice — though it is only fair to point out that Price had an easier night, facing fewer shots (31 vs. 37) and fewer tough rebounds than his American counterpart.
“We took shots from the perimeter,” Backes said, “and there were not a lot of second and third chances.”
For the most part, the Canadians dictated the pace of play (blazing), generated the better scoring chances and kept up the pressure in the offensive zone. Some on the U.S. side, in fact, questioned their own team’s focus and approach — an odd notion given what was at stake and how desperately the Americans wanted to get past their rivals.
“We didn’t show up to play,” defenseman Ryan Suter said. “It’s kind of frustrating. We sat back. We were passive. You can’t play scared. I thought we sat on our heels and just didn’t take it to them at all. We had motivation. We just didn’t take it on the ice.”
The confluence of the larger international rink (15 feet wider than those in North America) and an array of some of the best skaters and scorers in the NHL — the game featured eight of the top 10 goal scorers in the league this season — produced some scintillating, fast-paced hockey that started from the opening puck-drop.
“They came at us with speed,” U.S. Coach Dan Bylsma said. “They came at us for 60 minutes, and that was as fast of a game as I’ve ever been a part of. It was up and down the ice.”
Added Canadian center Matt Duchene: “I think we were the first team that could skate with them in this tournament. Even the Russians didn’t play them as hard as we did.”
Whenever the United States and Canada meet at these things, incestuous relationships — in the hockey sense — are inevitable. On Friday night, there were NHL coaches (Bylsma of the Pittsburgh Penguins) plotting ways to stop their own best player (Canada’s Sidney Crosby); burly defensemen (Alex Pietrangelo of Canada and the St. Louis Blues) throwing checks at their NHL teammates (Backes); and big-time scorers (Jeff Carter of Canada and the Los Angeles Kings) taking aim at the goalie they spend six months a year protecting (Quick).
“The game felt like we were back at home,” Canada’s Patrick Sharp said. “The familiarity between all the players out there helps.”
With the Russian team out of the tournament after a quarterfinals loss to Finland, the Bolshoy Dome was strangely quiet for much of the game, with occasional chants of “U-S-A!” and “Ca-na-da!” lobbed from one corner of the building to the other and an even more occasional chant of “Shaybu!” (“Score!”) from the apparently neutral Russian contingent.
Canada’s defense, with Price as its last line, has allowed just three goals in five games, compensating for the curious scoring drought of Canada’s collection of forwards, who have combined to score just seven goals in the tournament. Crosby, the great Penguins center and overtime hero of the 2010 Vancouver gold medal game, is still looking for his first goal of these Olympics.
The Canadians will have one more chance to locate that scoring chance, in the gold medal game against Sweden. It would be welcomed, to be sure, but by this point in the Olympics tournament, it is also clear that it probably isn’t necessary.